Science Heroes: Maria Sibylla Merian

The role of European women in the late 17th and early 18th centuries primarily revolved around a single undertaking: maintaining the household. This undertaking included multiple responsibilities: cooking, cleaning, raising and educating the children, tending to the garden, meeting their husband’s needs, and for more affluent families, managing the servants. Such tasks required women to be skilled and knowledgeable in handling herbs, plants, medicine, fabrics, and literature. Men were considered the financial leaders of the household and made decisions on whether their wives could work outside of the home. Women of the 17th and 18th centuries were also at the will of their patriarchal society as they couldn’t vote, enter certain professions, earn comparable wages, own land when married, or attend university.

For Maria Sibylla Merian, a late 17th and early 18th century naturalist and scientific illustrator, the classic, cookie-cutter housewife mold never fit quite right. Born in 1647 in Frankfurt, Germany to a family of artists, Merian revealed artistic talents, specifically painting flowers at an early age. Her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, was a still-life painter and helped foster Merian’s talents.

As a youngster Maria Sibylla Merian developed her passion for painting alongside a passion for insects; captivated by the insect life cycle. She initially became interested in silkworms, observing and illustrating each stage of the silkworm life cycle and its environment from eggs, larvae, through various molts, cocoon, and lastly adult moths on her canvases. She expanded her painting to other insects, but seemed to favor those with metamorphic development, such as caterpillars and their various transitions into adult butterflies. Merian became so engulfed by her interest in insects that she brought them into the house to care for and observe them in large numbers. Insect fascinations were rare, much more so for women of her time. It was deemed to be unlady-like as insects were often hairy, slimy, or overall considered distasteful creatures. Merian paid no mind to these notions of “lady-like” behavior as she observed, touched, and reared insects. Her curiosity and passion for insect development as well as painting continued to grow as she entered adulthood.

At eighteen, Maria Sibylla Merian married Johann Andreas Graff. She began taking on her duties as a housewife, especially after the birth of her first daughter, Johanna Helena, in 1668 and her second daughter, Dorothea Maria, ten years later. Although her expected duties as a wife and mother increased, she still found time to continue cultivating her painting and insect studies. In 1679, a year after Dorothea Maria was born, Merian published her first book “Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung” (“The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars”) in 1679 [1]. At the time, the primary scientific approach to understanding the natural world was to categorize plants and animals separately. Merian’s work was revolutionary for science as she emphasized the ecological context by painting insects amongst the plants they relied on for shelter and food, making her the first to highlight the entire insect life cycle and their relationship with plants.

In 1685, Merian left her husband and took her daughters to live in the Netherlands. There, she was able to sustain her family and interests by selling her paintings and observing exotic pinned specimens shared by local collectors. However, as she observed these pinned specimens, she couldn’t help but wish to see these insects in their natural habitats, undergoing each stage of development. This curiosity will lead Maria to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in her pursuit of science.

In 1699, at the age of 52, Maria and her daughter, Dorothea Maria, set off on a scientific expedition to Suriname, a Dutch colony in South America. This trip was highly unorthodox for several reasons. First, it was uncommon at the time to take voyages for purely scientific purposes [3]. While we tend to think of Charles Darwin as the face of western scientific exploration to faraway regions, Maria Sibyll Merian was a scientific and ecological pioneer, setting sail in search of exotic insects over 100 years before Darwin took to the seas on the HMS Beagle. Second, science was a male-dominated field, so for her to jettison her womanly duties in bold pursuit of scientific knowledge was surprising (to say the least). Third, Merian and her daughter Dorothea travelled without a male chaperone, which was viewed as improper and unsafe for women. Finally, she funded this worldly trip entirely by herself through the successful sales of her paintings. As aforementioned, men were the financial leaders of most households at the time, so to be financially independent and financing her own travel was quite preposterous at the time.

Once in Suriname, Maria Sibyll Merian took advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to explore every ecosystem in Suriname and study any arthropod she could get her hands on in gardens, rivers, fields, rainforests, and jungles. She clambered through tropical thickets, hoisted herself into the trees, and dug through various soils to collect live specimens, all while in a restrictive corset and cumbersome petticoat. She collaborated with the indigenous communities, compensating them for their traditional ecological knowledge on the local insect populations. For two years she enthusiastically committed to studying and painting living stages of insects in their ecological environment. Driven home due to illness, Merian and her daughter returned to Amsterdam in 1701.

Upon her return, with numerous paintings and specimens, Merian began working on her second book, which would highlight the wide variety of exotic entomological life cycles she observed and depicted in Suriname. The book was published in 1705 under the latin title “Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium” (The Metamorphoses of the Insects of Suriname) [2]. The illustrations and descriptions of development, insect-plant relationships, and insect-animal relationships were not only beautiful pieces of artwork, but scientifically accurate; they detailed the wonderous, natural imperfections of wilted blossoms or torn plant leaves and coupled the flora and fauna into one ecological illustration. Some pieces were shocking, and their accuracy questioned, especially since such things were never seen before and such scenes were deemed by some as grotesque for a woman to depict. One such famous piece (see below) was of a tarantula feeding on a hummingbird [2]. Regardless of some naysayers, Maria Sibylla Merian’s second and final publication attained much success and was regarded very highly amongst her contemporaries as well as future artists, scientists, and naturalists. Some of the original plates depicting her artwork from this publication are on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Merian spent the remainder of her life selling her artwork and books (including prominent individuals such as the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great) until her death in 1717. Following her death, during the Victorian Era, Merian’s work fell under scrutiny as women were suppressed to more strictly adhere to the housewife role expected of them. Her work, forgotten for hundreds of years, has recently resurfaced and is celebrated for the pivotal contributions to the artistic and scientific communities.

Maria Sybilla Merian was a woman way ahead of her time. Her work was truly interdisciplinary, striking an intricate balance between artistic expression and natural history knowledge with her scientific illustrations. She was praised for her ability to combine these two disciplines in an engaging and informative manner, inspiring future collaborations in art and science. Merian also made strides in pursuing a more wholistic view of biology, depicting animals behaving, developing, and struggling to survive in their natural habitats and ecological communities. She provided ecological context to her animal subjects two centuries before the term ecology itself would be officially coined by Ernst Haeckel and was the first to depict metamorphosis in a single image, clarifying the developmental processes of numerous insect species. Through her multiple depictions of the life stages in numerous insects, she provided evidence to disprove the widely held theory of spontaneous generation. This popular theory at the time claimed that many insects spontaneously emerged from nonliving substrates such as mud, dew, meat, books, wool, etc. However, her depictions of metamorphosis clearly show how insects emerge from eggs laid by adult insects. Merian was a woman of great tenacity as she overcame criticism to become a successful woman in the male dominated fields of art and science. She was not afraid to pursue her passions despite being considered unconventional or “unlady-like”. Maria Sibylla Merian was a naturalist, artist, scientist, ecologist, explorer, revolutionary, and pioneer, who paved the way for women in both the scientific and artistic communities.

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WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SCIENCE HERO?

Check out Popular Science pieces by Joanna Klein and Andrea Wulf.

Tune into the podcasts ‘Stuff You Missed in History Class‘ and BBC’s ‘Science Stories‘.

Take a look at Maria Sibylla Merian’s artwork and life here, here, and here!

Have a Young Explorer that would benefit from knowing this Science Hero? Head over to the Sci Hero column for printable Sci Hero Trading Cards featuring the Sci Hero’s “origin story” and super powers this Animal Adventure Thursday!

Check out Jeyaraney Kathirithamby and Sarah B. Pomeroy’s children’s book “Maria Sibylla Merian: Artist, Scientist, Adventurer” and Joyce Sidman’s children’s book “The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science“!

WANT TO CHECK OUT MARIA SIBYLLA MERIAN’S PUBLISHED RESEARCH?

[1] Merian, Maria Sibylla. Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung. mach-mir-ein-ebook. de, 2012.

[2] Merian, Maria Sibylla, and Lily Knibbeler. Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium. Lambert Schneider, 2017.

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Nicole W. Korzeniecki is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She’s interested in the dynamics of social insect colonies, specifically in host-microbiome interactions, collective decision-making, and the self-organization of complex behaviors.

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Additional References:

“Social and Family Life in the Late 17th & Early 18th Centuries.” British Literature Wiki. Retrieved from: sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/social-and-family-life-in-the-late17th-early-18th-centuries/.

“An Eventful Life.” Maria Sibylla Merian l Biography. Retrieved from: www.sibyllamerian.com/biography.html.

Wulf, Andrea (3, August, 2016). “The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful.The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company.

Etheridge, Kay (2011). “Maria Sibylla Merian: The First Ecologist?” Women and Science: Figures and representations – 17th century to present. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 31-61.

All photos credited to Wikimedia Commons using Creative Commons License.

[Edited by Karli Chudeau]

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